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Tennessee House expels two Black Democrats after gun violence protest

A third Democratic lawmaker, a white woman, was spared expulsion by a single vote.

(CN) — In an unprecedented move, the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday voted to expel two Democratic colleagues for procedural rules violations — namely, protesting against the proliferation of firearms and gun violence in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Nashville on March 27.

Gloria Johnson, a career educator and one of only two Democratic women in the state House, also faced expulsion but was spared by just one vote. Johnson is white, while the two expelled lawmakers — Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — are Black.

The expulsions have prompted outrage across the country, including from President Joe Biden. In a tweet on Thursday, he condemned the expulsions, calling them “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent.”

"Three kids and three officials [were] gunned down in yet another mass shooting," Biden said in his tweet. "What are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action."

Expulsion resolutions were originally adopted for all three of the Democratic state representatives: Jones of Nashville, Johnson of Knoxville and Pearson of Memphis. All were charged with disorder and disruption of the House chamber.

On March 30, four days after the shooting, the three approached the speaker’s well without recognition. Jones and Pearson made unauthorized statements urging the majority party to do more to prevent gun violence.

When the microphones were silenced, Jones pulled a megaphone from his jacket. Along with Pearson, he led supporters in the gallery through chants including “power to the people,” “no action no peace,” “whose house our house” and “gun control now.” 

Afterward, Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, of Crossville, suggested the episode amounted to an insurrection. He later tagged several conservative news pundits in a tweet calling their actions a “blatant disregard for house rules.”

Three separate resolutions to expel the Democrats were filed April 3. They were taken up by the body on Thursday in a passionate, eight-hour debate, over the echoes of chants of dozens of protesters outside the chamber.

Each defendant was allowed to make statements defending themselves, while other members of their caucus urged Republican counterparts to reconsider the resolutions. Jones, who was the first to be called, said the expulsions were a “farce of democracy” perpetuated by a “lynch mob.” Jones explained the trio approached the well because they were not being recognized by the Speaker. He said he brought the megaphone in anticipation of the microphones being cut. 

“I was not standing up for myself, I was standing up for my constituents […] all of whom are terrified by the continued trend of mass shootings plaguing our state and nation,” Jones said. “We had no other choice but to get our dissent marked for the journals.”

Jones noted there have only been three other expulsions of representatives from the Tennessee House in history — and except for a racially motivated expulsion in the Jim Crow era, the other two were related to more recent felony criminal charges of bribery and sexual abuse. 

Jones acknowledged he broke a minor House rule, but added he was “exercising my obedience to my constitutional responsibility to be a voice for my people.”

He eviscerated Republican colleagues and leadership for various hypocrisies, including declining to discipline their own members for committing crimes, rules violations and unethical behavior, even after someone allegedly urinated in another lawmaker's chair

“How can you bring dishonor to an already dishonorable house?" Jones asked. “How can you bring disorder to a house that is already out of order?”

The only piece of evidence allowed into introduction was a seven-minute, lightly edited compilation of video clips from the beginning of the protest, along with statements made by the Democratic defendants in news conferences afterward.

The majority of that video was filmed by Republican Representative Justin Lafferty, of Knoxville. Democrats said that was a rules violation itself, as members are prohibited from recording in the chamber while the House is in session. 

In his video, Lafferty largely kept the camera pointed at Johnson, who was mostly silent as Jones and Pearson led the chants.

Johnson was ultimately spared from expulsion by one vote. She and others argued her participation was minimal, although the resolutions brought identical charges against all three representatives. 

“We may have broken a House rule coming to the well, but much of this [resolution] is false,” she said, noting it accused her of “shouting and “pounding the podium.” The video did not depict either of those actions. 

Johnson added that according to polls, more than half of Republicans in her district want red flag laws to prevent gun sales to people at risk for violence, along with stronger storage laws and universal background checks.

“My conduct that day is what I felt in my heart to do to represent my constituents,” she concluded. “I did what I was compelled to do based on speaking for the voters in my district who were begging me to bring this issue forward.” 

Pearson, a 28-year-old community activist who was enjoying the second week of his first term when the resolution to expel him was filed, also acknowledged he broke House rules and decorum.

A more appropriate resolution would have been censure, he said. Instead, he said the expulsions were politically motivated and racially biased. 

“We were told Monday we would be expelled Thursday,” Pearson said. “We were not given due process and this wasn't and isn't fair. The erosion of democracy in the state legislature is what got us here. It wasn’t walking up to the well uninvited, it was being disruptive to a status quo that silences the minority. It is wrong. Just because you have power, doesn't mean you abuse it.” 

Republican Representative Gina Bulso of Brentwood was among the most vocal proponents of expulsion, pointing out that nothing prevents those expelled from campaigning again for special elections which will be called by Governor Bill Lee. 

“When you listen to [Jones’ testimony] closely, it appears he wants to be expelled,” Bulso said. “He and other representatives effectively conducted a mutiny. The gentlemen shows no remorse. He does not recognize what he did what wrong. So to not expel would simply invite him and his colleagues to continue to engage in mutiny."

"Rules say he might come back, but cannot be expelled a second time," Bulso added. "What we are doing today is upholding our constitution, protecting the integrity of this body.”

The Tennessee Legislature has entertained at least two bills this term ostensibly targeting gun violence or school shootings. One would allow teachers to carry firearms in some circumstances, while a second requires local and state law enforcement agencies to cooperate to assess threats at schools.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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